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By Kip Mikler, VeloNews editor
He had the form at the world championships on Sunday, and he proved that an American-based road pro can mix it up with Euro’ stars like David Millar, Paolo Bettini and Peter Van Petegem. But at the end of a long, successful season Chris Horner still doesn’t know how he’ll pay the bills next year.
“I’m looking for a job,” Horner said after an aggressive performance in the elite men’s race in Hamilton that saw him in several breaks, including one with world time trial champion Millar. “I was trying to prove today that I can ride with the big boys.”
Few can question that. The end result wasn’t what Horner was hoping for — 76th place, 2:11 behind Spanish winner Igor Astarloa — but he was strong and aggressive, chasing down breaks for team leader George Hincapie and seeking opportunities for himself.
“It wasn’t the result that I wanted today, but this was a hard course for me to get a result,” Horner said. “The racing was so easy, and I’m not gonna win the field sprint. If it could have just been harder all day long, it would have been a better race for me.”
Horner rides for Saturn, as do his teammates on the U.S. world’s team Tim Johnson and Mark McCormack. With the auto manufacturer ending its longstanding sponsorship of America’s top domestic road program this year, the job market looks bleak for some of the North American pros who raced in Hamilton.
Horner wasn’t alone in his predicament. When Canadian Eric Wohlberg was asked after the time trial about his plans for 2004, he stuck out his thumb. After three years with Saturn, the Canadian timer trial champion was looking to hitch a ride.
And the job crunch facing pros in 2004 goes beyond those who ride for Saturn. Michael Creed, the top American finisher in the under-23 race (34th), rides for Prime Alliance, another program with an uncertain future. After finishing sixth in the under-23 time trial on Tuesday, Creed said the next step was to “beg for a team to let me on.”
For young American riders like Creed, the best long-term career opportunities might be in Europe. U23 rider Patrick McCarty hasn’t made a splash on the domestic circuit, but while some of his peers were chasing National Racing Calendar points, McCarty was putting his time in with the USA Cycling U23 program based in Belgium. Now McCarty, who quietly climbed to a No. 4 world ranking in the U23 ranks this season, has inked a deal with U.S. Postal for 2004.
For American stars like Horner, however, landing a job with a European team isn’t easy. “I’d like to go back to Europe,” Horner said. “It’s just a tough economy right now. It’s a hard time to be trying to find a job. You’ve got Spanish teams folding, and other teams. All you can do is look.”
HORNER ON HAMILTON
In Horner’s humble opinion, the Italians blew it in the elite men’s race in Hamilton. “I was surprised the race was so easy,” Horner said. “The problem was, in my personal opinion, that the Italians sat so many guys at the front that they just intimidated everyone. Which is the wrong thing. You gotta have a break go, that’s what’s going to make it hard. You gotta let a 10-man break go so that it takes three teams driving it 100 percent to bring it back. By the time they do, everyone’s trashed and Bettini goes up the road. And that’s how you win.
“Instead, what they did was they intimidated everyone. That kept the pace slow the whole time, and it basically made it so that people could go with Bettini [at the end].”
The strategy for the American team was to get team leader George Hincapie to the end so he could contest the win, but as the laps counted down with a large main field still intact, it became clear that they had to look for opportunities however they came.
“With seven or eight laps to go, Floyd [Landis] and myself got in a good move but no one would work,” Horner said. “We were like nine, 10 guys, it was perfect. Italians still had a guy in there, too. But no one wanted to work. So we were just wasting energy to be there, which was a shame because I could have used that energy with one to go.”
FAST FREDDY STEPS UP
The top U.S. finisher was Fred Rodriguez (17th), who was a late addition to the team to replace Christian Vande Velde, but even though he was there for the field sprint, Rodriguez said he had a hard time helping his friend Hincapie.
“I told George that if he needed more help, I was willing to help him out,” Rodriguez said. “But I was tired, my season was long. Mentally I wasn’t prepared.”
Despite the short notice, Rodriguez hung in until the end. “At the end, we had to do a hard chase to try and bring [the break] back, and that was it for me,” he said. “I wasted all my apples there. My left leg was having some problems, I was having cramps with it so at that point there was nothing left.”
Rodriguez said he thinks the leg cramps are the result of early-season crashes that he’s still feeling. “I had bad crashes in the classics this year and I’m still having trouble rehabing my left leg.”
Americans at the world’s road race
18. Fred Rodriguez (USA), at 0:12
30. Guido Trenti (USA)
37. George Hincapie (USA), all s.t.
60. Floyd Landis (USA), at 0:30
76. Chris Horner (USA), at 2:11
92. Levi Leipheimer (USA), at 5:37Did Not Finish
Christopher Baldwin (USA)
Tim Johnson (USA)
John Lieswyn (USA)
Mark McCormack (USA)
Bobby Julich (USA)